IT automation: How to make the case

Want to get your entire team on board with automation plans? IT execs share their strategies
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Marketing Talk for the CIO

At the start of any significant project or change initiative, IT leaders face a proverbial fork in the road.

Path #1 might seem to offer the shortest route from A to B: Simply force-feed the project to everyone by executive mandate, essentially saying, “You’re going to do this – or else.”

Path #2 might appear less direct, because on this journey you take the time to explain the strategy and the reasons behind it. In fact, you’re going to be making pit stops along this route, rather than marathoning from start to finish: “Here’s what we’re doing – and why we’re doing it.”

Guess which path bears better results?

If you said #2, you’ve traveled both paths before – and experienced the results first-hand. Getting people on board with major changes beforehand is almost always the smarter choice.

IT leaders know as well as anyone that with significant change often comes significant fear, skepticism, and other challenges. It may be especially true with IT automation. The term alone sounds scary to some people, and it is often tied to misconceptions. Helping people understand the what, why, and how of your company’s automation strategy is a necessary step to achieving your goals associated with that strategy.

[ Read our related article, IT automation best practices: 7 keys to long-term success. ]

With that in mind, we asked a variety of IT leaders for their advice on making the case for automation in your organization:

1. Show people what’s in it for them

Let’s face it: Self-interest and self-preservation are natural instincts. Tapping into that human tendency is a good way to get people on board: Show people how your automation strategy will benefit them and their jobs. Will automating a particular process in the software pipeline mean fewer middle-of-the-night calls for team members? Will it enable some people to dump low-skill, manual tasks in favor of more strategic, higher-order work – the sort that helps them take the next step in their career?

“Convey what’s in it for them, and how it will benefit clients and the whole company,” advises Vipul Nagrath, global CIO at ADP. “Compare the current state to a brighter future state, where the company enjoys greater stability, agility, efficiency, and security.”

The same approach holds true when making the case outside of IT; just lighten up on the jargon when explaining the benefits to non-technical stakeholders, Nagrath says.

Setting up a before-and-after picture is a good storytelling device for helping people see the upside.

“You want to paint a picture of the current state that people can relate to,” Nagrath says. “Present what’s working, but also highlight what’s causing teams to be less than agile.” Then explain how automating certain processes will improve that current state.

2. Connect automation to specific business goals

Part of making a strong case entails making sure people understand that you’re not just trend-chasing. If you’re automating simply for the sake of automating, people will sniff that out and become more resistant – perhaps especially within IT.

“The case for automation needs to be driven by a business demand signal, such as revenue or operating expense,” says David Emerson, VP and deputy CISO at Cyxtera. “No automation endeavor is self-justifying, and no technical feat, generally, should be a means unto itself, unless it’s a core competency of the company.”

Like Nagrath, Emerson recommends promoting the incentives associated with achieving the business goals of automation, and working toward these goals (and corresponding incentives) in an iterative, step-by-step fashion.

3. Break the automation plan into manageable pieces

Even if your automation strategy is literally “automate everything,” that’s a tough sell (and probably unrealistic) for most organizations. You’ll make a stronger case with a plan that approaches automation manageable piece by manageable piece, and that enables greater flexibility to adapt along the way.

“When making a case for automation, I recommend clearly illustrating the incentive to move to an automated process, and allowing iteration toward that goal to introduce and prove the benefits at lower risk,” Emerson says.

Sergey Zuev, founder at GA Connector, shares an in-the-trenches account of why automating incrementally is crucial – and how it will help you build a stronger, longer-lasting argument for your strategy. Zuev should know: His company’s tool automates the import of data from CRM applications into Google Analytics. But it was actually the company’s internal experience automating its own customer onboarding process that led to a lightbulb moment.

“At first, we tried to build the whole onboarding funnel at once, and as a result, the project dragged [on] for months,” Zuev says. “After realizing that it [was] going nowhere, we decided to select small chunks that would have the biggest immediate effect, and start with that. As a result, we managed to implement one of the email sequences in just a week, and are already reaping the benefits of the desecrated manual effort.”

4. Sell the big-picture benefits too

A step-by-step approach does not preclude painting a bigger picture. Just as it’s a good idea to make the case at the individual or team level, it’s also a good idea for help people understand the company-wide benefits.

“If we can accelerate the time it takes for the business to get what it needs, it will silence the skeptics.”

Eric Kaplan, CTO at AHEAD, agrees that using small wins to show automation’s value is a smart strategy for winning people over. But the value those so-called “small” wins reveal can actually help you sharpen the big picture for people. Kaplan points to the value of individual and organizational time as an area everyone can connect with easily.

“The best place to do this is where you can show savings in terms of time,” Kaplan says. “If we can accelerate the time it takes for the business to get what it needs, it will silence the skeptics.”

Time and scalability are powerful benefits business and IT colleagues, both charged with growing the business, can grasp. 

“The result of automation is scalability – less effort per person to maintain and grow your IT environment, as Red Hat VP, Global Services John Allessio recently noted. “If adding manpower is the only way to grow your business, then scalability is a pipe dream. Automation reduces your manpower requirements and provides the flexibility required for continued IT evolution.” (See his full article, What DevOps teams really need from a CIO.) 

5. Promote the heck out of your results

At the outset of your automation strategy, you’ll likely be making the case based on goals and the anticipated benefits of achieving those goals. But as your automation strategy evolves, there’s no case quite as convincing as one grounded in real-world results.

“Seeing is believing,” says Nagrath, ADP’s CIO. “Nothing quiets skeptics like a track record of delivery.”

That means, of course, not only achieving your goals, but also doing so on time – another good reason for the iterative, step-by-step approach.

While quantitative results such as percentage improvements or cost savings can speak loudly, Nagrath advises his fellow IT leaders not to stop there when telling your automation story.

“Making a case for automation is also a qualitative discussion, where we can promote the issues prevented, overall business continuity, reductions in failures/errors, and associates taking on [greater] responsibility as they tackle more value-added tasks.”

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Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.